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The Lost Art of Baking Matzah

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The matzah that we Jews eat on Passover is simple bread, right? Well, yes and no.

On the one hand, it is the definition of simple as it can only contain flour and water. If the matzah is baked with any added ingredient, like eggs, juice or even salt, then it is not pure matzah, and cannot be used to satisfy the requirement of eating matzah at the Passover Seder.
On the other hand, making the matzah is an extremely intricate and complicated task that requires a great deal of preparation and intense effort.

Ideally, making the matzah that one eats at the Passover seder is a process that requires watching and guarding the grain used to bake the matzah going back to the actual harvest of the grain, which for our matzah is usually done in July. This is called shmurah matzah (guarded matzah).

It used to be that everyone baked their own matzah, but today it has become a lost art. Most Jews today simply buy their matzah from one of the few matzah factories that exist. This is a shame, because if we want to really connect to the spiritual value of the matzah we should reconnect to the process of making and baking the matzah.

I believe (although I hope I am mistaken) that our synagogue is the only synagogue in America west of New Jersey that bakes our own kosher for Passover shmurah matzah. For us, it has been an incredibly rewarding and spiritually uplifting process.

Here is an excerpt from my own book, "Fifty-Four Pick Up," which describes the background to how we came to start doing this project.

On a recent trip to Israel we toured a famous shmurah matzah factory. It was an inspiring experience.

We saw a shack and inside this shack were three ultra-Orthodox Jews grinding the grain of the wheat by hand into flour. It required both immense force and concentration. Although one is allowed to use a machine to grind the matzah, they were grinding it by hand in order to beautify the mitzvah. This type of matzah is called Rashi Matzah (rechayim shel yad -- ground by hand). The men doing the grinding were working up a tremendous sweat and could not be spoken to as it might interrupt their focus on grinding the grain for the purpose of eating matzah on Pesach.

I found this so inspiring that I immediately decided that we too would make our own shmurah matzah in Washington, D.C.

So I came back from our trip to Israel all inspired and ready to bake matzah. But I quickly learned that it wasn't so simple.

Here are some of the customs and stringencies involved in baking shmurah matzah which presented logistical challenges:
  • It is a custom to bake shmurah matzah in a brick oven.
  • It is a custom to only use well water that has been drawn and kept overnight.
  • It is a custom to only use grain that has been guarded under lock and key since the moment of harvest in order to make sure no water has touched it.
  • Each batch of matzah needs to be baked in fewer than 18 minutes, and the kitchen must be entirely cleaned from even a speck of flour.
  • Since making matzah is a unique activity there was also the challenge of acquiring the equipment necessary to make this matzah. For example, there was a need for a reidel, to poke holes in the matzah in order to make sure that the dough had no holes which could swell and make air pockets and thereby disqualify the matzah. In fact, there was a whole list of distinct matzah baking equipment.
People laughed when I told them about my dream to bake my own matzah but it all fell into place in the end.

We found a used brick oven in San Antonio and our friend Joe from Minnesota flew to San Antonio and drove the brick oven to D.C. We clarified that a brand of spring water had no added ingredients and that satisfied our need for well water. Then we contacted one of the few shmurah matzah factories in the world and we asked if we could pick up some of their "guarded flour" a few days before Pesach. Best of all, we found a man who used to own his own matzah factory but then had to close it down because there wasn't enough business. Lucky for us, he still had some of his old equipment which he was kind enough to share. More importantly, he still had the itch to make matzah and he graciously helped us learn the tricks of the trade.

This is the third year we have baked the matzah. Our first two years the matzah looked nothing like the matzah people were used to seeing. But now we have got the hang of it and our matzah looks semi-professional.

But that is not even the point.

When we bake the matzah in our synagogue it is a multi-generational, community effort. We put our heart and soul into each batch of dough. The actual baking of the matzah is an intense process; it is filled with some anxiety and frustration, requires hard work and skill (which we are slowly acquiring), and it involves a great deal of excitement.

But it is all worth it.

The matzah we bake still doesn't look exactly the same. But it tastes divine. And when you look closely at our matzah I believe you can see the faces of our ancestors as they left the land of Egypt.

Watch us baking matzah.